- Eleni by Nicholas Gage
Collins, 472 pp, £9.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 00 217147 3
Those Greeks who grew up in the Civil War knew there was an enemy – but didn’t know who the enemy was or where he would come from. The memory, from my own childhood in Salonica, of my father’s shop being taken over by a Communist group is crosscut with memories of hush-hush accounts of police tortures suffered by my uncle for supporting the Communists. For a long time after the Civil War ended, our street games re-created it in all its tactics – prisoners, hostages, raids: but if one of us said, ‘I’ll tell my father the officer,’ the fear was real. As tangible as the preposterous iron bar guarding the door of a modern Salonica flat well into the Sixties, and as preposterous as the convoy of tanks in the peaceful streets of the city in the dawn of 21 April 1967.
A civil war enters the home more tangibly than other kinds of war: fear is more intimate and eats into the family and the imagination. One may question with T.S. Eliot whether a civil war ever does end. It may pervade the metabolism of subsequent generations and appear in new psychological and historical traumas, being fed by the memories and passions it feeds, each major crisis leading to other crises. The Greek Civil War of 1946-9, rooted in the Anatolian Catastrophe of 1922, left a legacy of deep hatred and repression, which led to the Colonels’ coup of 1967 and to the partition of Cyprus in 1974.
The central event of Eleni is the torture and execution of Eleni Gatzoyiannis by Greek Communist guerrillas in the last months of the Civil War. She had been condemned for organising the escape of her children from the guerrilla-occupied village of Lia, to prevent their being taken behind the Iron Curtain. The children eventually joined their father, who had lived in America since 1910. The youngest, eight-year-old Nicholas, grew up in the States as Nicholas Gage.
In the late Seventies, Mr Gage – now an investigative reporter for the New York Times – comes back to Greece to track down and take revenge on those responsible for his mother’s death. His pursuit of revenge leads him to the investigation and reconstruction of Eleni’s story, and of the life of her village during the war years. His book, a record of the trauma of his own family, is also a witness to – and in part, it seems to me, a casualty of – the larger trauma of modern Greek history. The reconstruction of the world of Lia based on the recollections of scores of witnesses interviewed by the author is the best part of the book. The village, high in the Mourgana Mountains near the Albanian border, was a remote, primitive community of itinerant tinkers and coopers – and of grim traditions which decreed, for instance, that a wife, during her husband’s long absences, was the property of her mother-in-law, with whom, as token of her subjugation, she had to spend her wedding night. Eleni herself was fortunate, and envied, for having been chosen by the portly, prosperous-looking ‘American’, Christos, who built and furnished for her the largest and richest house in Lia, where she was to raise their daughters away from the ‘corrupt’ life of America. One of the most poignant episodes describes Christos arriving from America with food, mod cons, a roll of dollar bills. His wife had been wasting with illness: like a deus ex machina he whisks her away from Lia on an immense journey to Corfu, where the two of them spend their time sitting at the Great Esplanade ‘eating coloured ices and listening to musicians in starched uniforms singing Italian cantatas’. They return to Lia, she cured, and pregnant with yet another girl: he the triumphant owner of ‘a gleaming brass bed’ – the only bed in Lia.
Resistance to the German occupation in Greece had been dominated by the large and popular left-wing movement ELAS. Hostilities between the strongly anti-monarchist ELAS and British-supported royalist groups started even before the German withdrawal in 1944. Following the abortive amnesty of Varkiza in February 1945 and the prolonged terrorist campaign directed against them by extreme right-wing collaborationist groups, the fighters of ELAS returned to the mountains and reorganised as the Democratic Army. Increasingly under Communist control, they came to open confrontation with the purged and reorganised Government Army, which was supported by the British and after 1947, massively, by the Americans.
Lia was one of the bases of ELAS and later of the Democratic Army, and at the centre of the Civil War: Mr Gage’s portrayal of the Civil War is, however, partial, misleading and undocumented. He scarcely acknowledges, for instance, the benefits of government and order – the means of survival – which the ELAS guerrillas had brought in the war years to the Greek countryside, devastated by famine and German mass reprisals. He mentions only in passing the long terrorist campaign against ELAS, when the heads of ELAS fighters would be exhibited in village squares: what he dwells on, as war gives way to civil war, is the steady, determined, malignant escalation of ELAS atrocities.
With the appearance of ELAS and the arrival of the Civil War in Lia, Mr Gage’s book increasingly suffers the damage of war. More than thirty years later, he is still unable to see the ELAS guerrillas as anything other than the flat villains of melodrama. A special emotive language is switched on to describe them: Mitzi Vollis, ‘the braggart petty sadist and malicious joker’, later to become ‘the zealous, sadistic interrogator’; Kapetan Petritis – ‘a veneer of civilised erudition marked his brutal nature’; Sotiris Drapetis, ‘the sadistic Intelligence Officer of Lia’. Seen together, the guerrillas are a band of ‘satanic, dirt-streaked, bearded faces’. Behind this vocabulary of darkness may be the fear of an eight-year-old boy, but what we are shown is hardened adult hate, closed to the interrogative charities of the imagination. The ELAS guerrillas appear in Mr Gage’s book like an evil power descended on the village from the Soviet North: but, as he himself says, the guerrillas of Lia were mostly locals. He does not ask what in the village was so corruptible – where the cruelty sprang from.
Eleni’s sufferings at the hands of the Communist guerrillas, through successive interrogations and torture to her final execution, were very real and terrible, and one can understand how difficult it must have been for Mr Gage to present the guerrillas as human. But they were human, and if not Mr Gage the son, Mr Gage the author might have made some effort to imagine the extreme circumstances of ELAS in these final months of the Civil War, betrayed and denounced by the Party hierarchy as ‘petty-bourgeois deviationists’, and at the end an army largely of hungry adolescents and women, fighting with extraordinary bravery an enemy equipped with American armaments and the newly-invented napalm.
He could indeed have given more imagination to the character of Eleni herself. He seems too easily satisfied with the archetype of the Mother, with all the resounding echoes of capitalised sentimentality in the Greek words Maria, Milera; or with the other archetype of the one noble person in an ignoble world determined to destroy her. The glimpses we get of Eleni show her to be of the stock and soil of the village. Money and property mattered to her, as they mattered to her husband Christos, and as they mattered to the other villagers of Lia. Only in one fleeting phrase does Mr Gage reveal that the reason Eleni stayed on so dangerously late in Lia was to ‘protect the house’; otherwise, any such material motive is excluded.
On several occasions, Eleni betrays as much cruelty as the rest of the village. In bitterness at her father and husband for letting her down, she hurls stones at the family’s old mule until the animal is dead; angry with her children and anxious to discipline them, she throws stones at them. In one of the most horrifying incidents in the book, she cripples her eldest daughter Olga by scalding her feet with boiling water and then – with the help of her mother – burning them with a hot iron poker, in order to prevent her from being conscripted into the guerrilla army. That torment matches the torments inflicted by the guerrillas on their prisoners – conceivably not just out of sadism but also out of a passion, and desperation, and fear, that matched Eleni’s own.
The reason Eleni and her mother inflicted that torment on the young Olga was not so much fear for the girl’s life as fear for her virginity – although the guerrillas were known for their harsh, puritanical discipline. People didn’t only clutch onto their property: in crippling the young girl the two generations of peasant mothers were also clutching, with hideous tenacity, onto the brutal traditions that may have crippled them – and to which ELAS, with its promises of emancipation, was a threat. What in that war drove people to such brutalities would have been a reasonable question for Mr Gage to ask.
Eleni must have been a tough, shrewd, brave woman: I doubt whether she would have had the self-involved sentimentality to see herself as one of those ‘baby chicks, dyed a brilliant scarlet’ to be sold at Easter, and pecked to death by ‘ordinary fowl outraged at their unconventional plumage’. The dyeing and the selling are Mr Gage’s, and I wonder whether the image was not meant for the author’s younger self, who is certainly given, in the story, an unconventional plumage. Perhaps as a corollary to this sentiment, the book is devoid of a larger compassion. The tender pity, for his mother and for himself, is not enlarged into the pity of war.
It is as if Greek history, and Mr Gage’s thoughts about it, froze for him at the point of his departure from Greece, and hardened into the national attitudes of his adopted country. He describes his ‘shock’ when he discovered that the ‘fall of the Junta and the establishment of a new civilian government ... created a renaissance of Communist power.’ Till then, as he tells us, he had been following reports of God’s punishment on the Lia Communists and their children through horrible diseases and deaths. The amnesty for the Communists, and their return from exile to Greece, ‘shattered any belief ... in divine retribution’. At least those responsible for his mother’s death are now accessible and he resolves to track them down and take revenge.
He smuggles a revolver into Greece in a vacuum cleaner in order, he tells us, to take revenge on the man who had sentenced his mother, the infamous ‘Katis’. We are meant to follow Mr Gage’s steps in suspense: will he kill the judge – or is revenge, after all, only part of the blurb? He puts into practice his investigative skills: with a mini-tape-recorder hidden in his sock and using the Greek political ‘lubricants’ and ‘patronage’ available to him, he ‘squeezes’ and ‘pumps’ information from Communist and non-Communist witnesses. He does not hide his satisfied contempt for the former Communist guerrillas spending their old age in miserable poverty behind the Iron Curtain or in Greece; nor does he hide his ‘disgust’ at the ‘apathy’ and ‘fatalism’ of those Greeks who had had relatives killed by the guerrillas but who were not prepared – as he was? – to take the gun and the law into their own hands.
Any Greek who had lived through the oppressive political silence that reigned in Greece for long stretches after the Civil War, who felt himself deafened by military music, nationalistic slogans and American rock-and-roll, and who shared in the wish to heal the divisions that had been ravaging the country for so long, would have – should have – acted like the ‘unsmiling’, ‘taciturn’ old Stephanos Tassis, who had lost his wife to the guerrillas, and who, having listened silently to Gage’s talk of revenge, wished him pointedly good-day and returned to his card game.